Tuesday, October 9, 2018

On diversity, I say the more the merrier

Enchanting as San Miguel is to us—the intimacy, climate, our beautiful ranch and the dear friends we have here—it still does the mind and soul good to escape periodically to the larger playpen of a bigger city, a really big city.

What is it about a big city that thrills, despite the obvious drawbacks of crowds pushing and shoving or a blast of northern winter like we experienced in New York when we went there on New Year's to celebrate my seventieth birthday?

Expensive cultural attractions, like "Tosca" at the Met on New Year's Eve, or Bette Midler knocking them dead in "Hello Dolly" are certainly part of the mix. There was also the spectacular new Whitney Museum, overlooking the gray and frigid Hudson River, and the Neue Galerie, home to Gustav Klimt's famed painting, nicknamed "Woman in Gold," a shimmering and enigmatic Mona Lisa, made [even more] popular by the film starring Helen Mirren. Plus restaurants, restaurants, restaurants.

Hey, there, mein Freund.
Our most recent "big-city fix," as Stew calls them, was our hometown of Chicago a month ago, hardly as big as New York but certainly one of the world's great cities. There were musicals ("Hamilton") and the premiere of a play at the famed Goodman Theater, plus a memorable performance of Mozart's "Requiem" by the Music of the Baroque at the Harris Theater, a new venue we had never visited and which made up with near-perfect acoustics and sightlines what it lacked in warmth (the lobby looked like a cross between a bunker and subway station).

A ninety-minute architectural cruise on the Chicago River, during which we oohed and aahed at the old and new buildings like a couple of rubbernecking hayseeds, coupled with perfect weather (read: San Miguel-like) all eight days we were there, and we had the perfect antidote to the stress back here surrounding the legal wrangling over someone trying to steal a piece of our land.

What's with our fascination with bustling big cities? Buildings are great, culture is edifying and food always exciting.

But at the heart of all the excitement is one element—if you pardon the damn cliché—called "energy". And that comes from the multitude of faces and nationalities.

It's called diversity—of skin colors, languages, dress, cuisines and experiences—a concept recently thrown into disrepute in the U.S. and Europe, by forces of nationalism, closed-mindedness, intolerance and even racism.

Some people have developed an adverse reaction to anyone who looks or dresses differently from the face they see on their bathroom mirror every morning.

Some conservatives bemoan the erosion of some golden age of ethnic homogeneity in the U.S. Fox commentator Laura Ingraham ominously noted that "[I]n some parts of the country it does seem like the American we know and love doesn't exist anymore," the sort of dog-whistling that makes white nationalists' ears perk up. In Europe, similar close-the-borders messages are gaining traction in France, Italy, Britain and Eastern Europe.

Stew and I, on the other hand, seem to revel in racial and cultural diversity when we travel abroad or to large American cities like Chicago and New York, and it's difficult to pinpoint why.

We lived in Chicago for thirty years and the crush of different people and faces aboard a rush-hour train was expected, natural. Within a ten-minute walk from our house near Wrigley Field there seemed to be an endless variety of restaurants and shops. Mama Desta (Ethiopian), Helmand (Afghan) and myriad other cuisines I can no longer remember but miss nevertheless. Even Iva Toguri D'Aquino, a.k.a. "Tokyo Rose" during World War II, had an Asian curio shop near us until she died in 2006.

That's certainly not the case in San Miguel, a charming fish tank populated by only two kinds of guppies—expats and Mexicans—who generally keep to themselves. Mexico City is home to more nationalities but hardly as diverse as the typical American metropolis.

The Chicago friends we stayed with during our last visit live in Edgewater, near the Granville "el" stop, a beautiful neighborhood with its own cornucopia of ethnic grocery stores and restaurants. We ate at a terrific Eritrean restaurant that was empty at dinner time; we learned that rush hour is around noon when the place is mobbed by Eritrean and Ethiopian cab drivers looking for home cooking. Greek. Somalian. Mexican (of course). The Assyrian Civic Association. Kosher delis. Indian. Pakistani.

Next year in Tirana!
Perhaps the most curious was the "L. Woods Tap and Pine Lodge" in Lincolnwood, an establishment designed to resemble a "supper club" like the ones Stew and his family frequented when they lived in the northern Wisconsin tundra, near the Arctic Circle. Stew was tickled by the memories.

Another showstopper was the Cermak Supermarket, a huge and fastidiously neat and tidy operation, that seemed to have every ethnic edible imaginable, organized by sections. The Mexican produce corner, Stew noted, actually had a greater variety that we find at the Mega supermarket in San Miguel, from huitlacoche, zucchini blossoms and a rainbow selection of tortillas. Stew bought a package of some sort of Indian soup that we tried here and found really awful.

Another stop was the Devon Market (stress on the "o" according to Chicagoese), selling newspapers in Cyrillic (Russian? Ukrainian?) and a news weekly for homesick Bosnians and Herzegovinians. We bought some bath soap from somewhere, a "I love Albania shopping bag" and made some small talk with the Iranian cashier.

All the news it's fit to print in Russian,
Ukrainian or whatever this is. 
When Stew came out from a visit to the ophthalmologist at Northwestern Hospital, a woman patient went in, dressed in a head-to-foot black garment except for a narrow slit for the eyes, accompanied by her watchful, bearded husband. I wonder how you do an eye exam or try on eyeglasses with all those layers of fabric in the way. Or what difference the style would make if your face is permanently covered.

In our travels we've found all our foreign encounters interesting, novel and curious, an opportunity to find out other people's take on life and the pursuit of happiness. In Egypt, for example, people were friendly, despite a strange warning "to watch out for the Muslim Brotherhood" from a friend in the U.S. If anything, Chicago's Southwest Side right now is far more dangerous than other places we've visited, such as the West Bank or Turkey. We've liked some places more than others but have never felt threatened.

In Chicago we wondered what would happen if all those immigrant and foreign enclaves—the shops, restaurants, places of worship—were suddenly erased from the map. Economically the city would suffer and it certainly would not be such an interesting place to visit.

Nationally, it'd be folly too to advocate a return to an ethnically homogeneous American utopia that never existed. "Et pluribus unum" is not a very catchy bumper sticker but it has served America well.

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